Sunday’s game between the Lions and Cowboys has been the most talked about contest from Wild Card weekend. By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the officials pick up the flag on a potential pass interference call that would have given the Lions a first down. One thing I learned from this weekend is that there are an alarming number of people who believe in conspiracy theories.
I for one don’t believe the NFL is fixed, or that officials make calls based on television ratings and so on. What really matters is that the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Detroit Lions, and that Tony Romo and the gang will have the unenviable task of defeating the Packers in Green Bay. The last time these two teams met was late last season in Dallas, when the Matt Flynn led Packers overcame a 23-point deficit to beat the Cowboys 37-36 and put a dagger in their 2013 playoff hopes.
The Packers were a perfect 8-0 at Lambeau field this year. A great offense, combined with a rowdy crowd and frigid temperatures, make playing in Green Bay a difficult task for any team. The last time the guys in green and yellow dropped a game at home, was over a year ago on Wild Card weekend, when they lost to the San Francisco 49ers 23-20, on a last second field goal by Niners’ kicker Phil Dawson.
A big reason why the 49ers were able to win that game was because quarterback Colin Kaepernick created several big plays with his legs. San Francisco was able to extend drives because of Kaepernick’s running ability, and it kept the Packers’ defense off balance.
Of course the fact that Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense only had one yard of offense until late in the first half didn’t help matters either. People often believe that because the Packers play in more cold weather games than a team like the Cowboys, that it gives them a distinct advantage over the opposition. I don’t buy that theory. When it’s cold, it’s cold.
This game is also the most intriguing of Divisional weekend due to the history of both teams. Combined, they’ve won nine Super Bowls and of course the Packers have their 11 championships prior to the Super Bowl era. This is the first playoff meeting in Green Bay between the two teams since the legendary Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL Championship, won by the Packers on Bart Starr’s QB sneak.
Why Dallas Can Win:
Playing in chilly conditions is easier for some guys than it is for others. No one expected Kaepernick to outplay Rodgers in the cold in last year’s playoffs, especially because the 49ers are used to warmer temperatures, but it happened. Many people are already writing the Cowboys off, but to say that they don’t have a chance this weekend would be foolish.
I’m not saying an upset is likely, but I do believe the Cowboys have a shot at winning this game. After all, no team won more games on the road than Dallas this season (8-0), and some would argue that the Cowboys are more dangerous on the road than at home.
One thing I highlighted in last week’s Wild Card preview was the importance of the matchup between the Dallas offensive line and the Lions defensive line. The Cowboys struggled to move the ball for most of the first half, and coincidently (or not), they didn’t give DeMarco Murray enough touches to get him going. Granted, the Lions have a ferocious run defense (they allowed just under 70 yards rushing per game in 2014), but Dallas seemed to play into Detroit’s hand.
The Cowboys didn’t produce any offense until Tony Romo and Terrance Williams connected on a long touchdown near the end of the second quarter. In the end, Murray finished with a respectable 75 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown. The Cowboys’ running back also added three catches for 22 yards. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but for Dallas to have a chance in Green Bay, they will need Murray even more than they did last week.
The Packers’ offense is one of the premiere units in the NFL. They have a plethora of weapons like receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, running back Eddie Lacy, and a quarterback you may have heard of, Aaron Rodgers. In his last 16 games at Lambeau Field, Rodgers stat line is incredible. He hasn’t thrown an interception in that span, and he is 322-471 (just over 68%) for 4,341 yards, with 38 touchdown passes and three rushing scores.
The Packers’ pivot is coming into the game with a calf injury, so laying hits on him will be imperative. Even if the Cowboys do get to Rodgers, there’s no guarantee that it will slow him down. It can’t hurt, but it will take a lot more than that to keep the Packers’ offense from producing. That’s where Dallas’ running game steps in.
Murray obviously won’t be on the field at the same time as Rodgers, but the more Murray and the Cowboys’ offense are on the field, the less Rodgers will be. The best way to keep the Packers out of the end zone, is to keep their offense on the sideline.
The Packers may have finished ahead of the Lions in the standings, but Dallas should be able to run the ball with a lot more success this week. The Packers have the 23rd ranked run defense in the NFL, allowing 119.9 yards on the ground per game. If the Cowboys can slow the game down by running the ball effectively, it would go a long way in helping them shock the football world.
Even if they do run the ball successfully, Dallas will need another outstanding effort from quarterback Tony Romo, and their playmakers on offense. An effective run game should open things up for Dez Bryant, who was held to three catches and 48 yards against Detroit last Sunday (43 of those yards came on one play). The Lions did a good job of taking Bryant away, but Terrance Williams (three receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns), Cole Beasley (four receptions for 63 yards), and Jason Witten (five receptions for 63 yards) created enough big plays to propel the Cowboys to a win. If Dallas can be efficient with the ball and Romo can connect with Dez Bryant more than he did a week ago, the Cowboys have a chance.
Why Green Bay Can Win:
For Green Bay, it’s more about continuing what they’ve been doing all season. A big reason why the Cowboys’ defense has been better than originally anticipated is because they force a lot of turnovers. The Cowboys’ defense is tied for seventh in the NFL with 18 interceptions, and they are fifth in the league with 15 recovered fumbles.
Like any other game, turnovers will be huge, but Green Bay simply doesn’t turn the ball over very much. Rodgers had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 38:5 this season. His five interceptions are the lowest among quarterbacks with 250 pass attempts or more this season.
Like any other week, the Packers will try to keep the opposing defense off balance. The Cowboys should see a steady dose of running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, and if the Packers get the ground game going, it will be a long day for Dallas. It will be especially difficult for the Cowboys if linebacker Rolando McClain can’t play. McClain left Sunday’s win against Detroit with concussion-like symptoms. The 25-year-old didn’t practice on Wednesday, so his status may be in doubt for this weekend’s showdown against the Packers. If McClain can’t play, that just gives the Packers’ offense one less talented defender to deal with.
Another key for Green Bay will be to limit the number of hits quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes. In every game, you want to keep your quarterback as clean as possible, but it should be stressed even more in this game. Rodgers has been bothered by a calf injury he suffered on the second series of week 16’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers’ quarterback aggravated the injury in Week 17’s win over the Detroit Lions, but after missing two offensive series in that game, he returned to lead Green Bay to victory. Rodgers has now had an additional week of rest because of last week’s bye, but keeping him upright and preventing him from taking shots to his calf (in the cold) can’t hurt.
The combined home record for the teams hosting playoff games this weekend (New England, Denver, Seattle and Green Bay) is 30-2. The two losses happened in New England and Seattle. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that New England’s home loss came to Buffalo in Week 17, when the Patriots rested Tom Brady for most of the game, and they didn’t dress tight end Rob Gronkowski. For Seattle, their only loss came to, you guessed it, the Dallas Cowboys.
I believe the Packers learned a lot from last year’s home playoff loss to San Francisco. The offense sputtered, and the defense couldn’t come up with the big play when they needed to most in that game, and Mike McCarthy’s guys understand that they aren’t invincible at home. The Packers can’t take Dallas lightly. The Cowboys have playmakers and they have proven all season that they can win in a hostile environment.
If the Packers continue to move the ball like they have most of this season, and the defense just holds their own, Green Bay should have no problem winning this game. Sure an upset is possible at Lambeau, but I wouldn’t say it’s likely, especially after the way their disappointing season ended one year ago.
Who Will Win?
As I mentioned above, if the Cowboys come into Lambeau field and control the clock with their running game, they could have a chance. Unfortunately for them, I don’t see the Packers losing this game at home, especially after they were upset at Lambeau Field in the playoffs just one year ago. I think the week off really helped Aaron Rodgers get healthy, and although I don’t expect it to be a blowout, I do expect the Packers to eventually pull away, perhaps with a late interception return or a long Eddie Lacy run.
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